Ivy On Celluloid: So Undercover

So Undercover

Today, in my continuing series about portrayals of higher education on film, I’m taking a look at the Miley Cyrus vehicle So Undercover.

The plot of So Undercover is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A tough, street-smart private eye is hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.

So Undercover was directed by Tom Vaughan, who has primarily worked on television shows like Big Love, The Royals, Victoria, and Press. The screenplay was provided by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty, The Switch, Here Comes The Boom) and producer Steven Pearl (New Amsterdam).

The cast of the film is headlined by pop star Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, Black Mirror) and Jeremy Piven (Entourage, Smokin’ Aces, PCU, Car 54 Where Are You?), with supporting roles filled in by Mike O’Malley (Glee, Justified, My Name is Earl), Eloise Mumford (Fifty Shades of Grey), and Megan Park (Diary of the Dead).

So Undercover went through some hiccups in regards to distribution – after a number of delays and rights exchanges, it never ultimately made it to theaters in the United States, though it did in a handful of international markets. For domestic audiences, the film was only available direct-to-video.

The reception to So Undercover was generally negative: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10 alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 6% from critics and 49% from audiences, though the direct-to-video release meant that not very many people ever even saw the film.

To begin the higher education analysis of So Undercover, it is worth digging into the host institution for the story. While the school is never named, it is clear from dialogue and external shots that the setting is New Orleans, LA, and the majority of on-campus shooting is done against the backdrop of Tulane University’s scenic campus in uptown New Orleans. The institution itself is never given much detail, but the specific setting and appearance make it clear enough that it is a vaguely fictionalized stand-in for Tulane.

A number of times throughout the movie, Miley Cyrus’s character is shown to have guns in her sorority house room, which shocks a number of her sisters. Laws regarding the possession of firearms on college campuses vary by state – in some, guns are outright banned, while others only permit their presence when secured in a locked car in a parking lot. Other states, like Utah, allow for open and concealed carry at public higher education institutions. In Louisiana, the law on the topic applies to both public and private higher education institutions, and reads as follows:

Carrying a firearm, or dangerous weapon as defined in R.S. 14:2, by a student or nonstudent on school property, at a school sponsored function, or in a firearm-free zone is unlawful and shall be defined as possession of any firearm or dangerous weapon, on one’s person, at any time while on a school campus, on school transportation, or at any school sponsored function in a specific designated area including but not limited to athletic competitions, dances, parties, or any extracurricular activities, or within one thousand feet of any school campus.

However, there are a number of exceptions to this rule. Notably, one of these states that “a student who possesses a firearm in his dormitory room” is exempt – while I am not a lawyer, I suspect this wording would include a personal sorority house room. Thus, according to Louisiana law, Hannah Montana is a-ok to be armed in her sorority house. That said, there have been a number of real news stories of Greek organizations having firearms issues in their houses. In 2006, the investigation of a shooting led to a search of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house at Oregon State University, which yielded over two dozen firearms throughout the house.

After a Corvallis man, Dennis Sanderson, was shot Oct. 14, in the alley behind the house, police searched Alpha Gamma Rho and found more than two dozen weapons including .22-caliber rifles and 12- and 20-gauge shotguns.

In February of 2018, a fraternity member at Washington University-St. Louis was suspended and removed from campus after an AR-15 was discovered in his possession at his fraternity house, in violation of school policy. Other firearm incidences have occurred involving fraternities at Yale University and Kettering University. Fraternity hazing incidences involving firearms have led to disciplinary actions at the University of Central Florida and Oklahoma State University. However, as you may notice, these are all specifically involving fraternities – I wasn’t able to dig up any particular instances of sororities or sorority members being disciplined for possession or use of firearms. This is perhaps not surprising – Pew Research Center data indicates that women are more likely to become gun owners later in life, and are less likely to keep their guns easily accessible and loaded in their homes.

The central plot of the So Undercover revolves around the FBI needing to embed on a college campus for a case. In truth, it is not unheard of for the FBI to be active on college campuses. Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities by Daniel Golden is a book that spotlights the actions of intelligence agencies on American college campuses, including research espionage by foreign powers, attempts to turn foreign students into American assets, and faculty acting as informants on all sides. The FBI was also instrumental in the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, which uncovered widespread college admissions fraud at universities like the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown.

What I have not been able to dig up, however, are any examples of the FBI infiltrating a sorority. The closest thing I found was the story of Tracy Walder, who went from being a sorority member at the University of Southern California immediately into a career in CIA counterterrorism after graduation, and eventually a position at the FBI. Her story has been turned into a forthcoming book, The Sorority Girl Who Saved Your Life, which is set to become a television show at ABC.

At one point in the film, there is a passing reference to sorority members having eating disorders. A 2013 article cited that eating disorders affect 12-25% of college women, and that there is a positive correlation between sorority membership and eating disorders. In the study, the authors sought to confirm a causal link between the two. However, they concluded the following:

we confirm that sororities exert a negative effect on the weight-related behaviors of their members. However, females who are more resilient to these outcomes self-select into sororities, implying that females in sororities are less adversely affected by them than a female who was randomly selected to join a sorority would be.

Another study, however, found that their “results…suggest both that sororities attract at-risk women and that living in a sorority house is associated with increased likelihood of disordered eating.” The topic is very much in the public consciousness as a real issue facing college women and sorority members, and will almost certainly spur further research.

The sorority at the center of the story is named Kappa Kappa Zeta, a wholly fictitious organization. However, there is a Kappa Kappa Zeta website, which features stills and a gallery of characters from So Undercover in a facsimile of a real sorority website.  The real-life inspiration for the sorority, judging from the name, is likely Kappa Kappa Gamma, a prominent sorority located at roughly 170 campuses in the United States.

One of the characters in the film, who doesn’t quite fit the traditional mold of the sorority, claims that the organization leadership “had to let me in,” due to her being a “legacy.” As she explains, her mother was a member of the same fraternity, meaning that she was guaranteed membership. In reality, this isn’t always necessarily the case – different organizations treat legacy benefits differently. Alpha Gamma Delta only guarantees legacies “a courtesy invitation to the first invitational round,” and no assurances of acceptance. Delta Delta Delta leaves legacy treatment policies entirely to the local chapters,  giving them “full discretion over how they treat legacies, so long as a specific policy is clearly outlined in the collegiate chapter policies.” As an article on TotallyTailgates claims, legacies are no longer generally given the latitude they once received for membership, primarily due to a lack of available slots for membership and an increasing popularity of Greek organizations.

Miley Cyrus’s character in the film operates under the cover story of being a transfer student from another chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Hawaii. As far as we see, she is accepted into the sorority without any issue. However, as with the legacy point, this doesn’t seem to be how the process typically works now. I haven’t been able to dig up much information on the topic, but based on the responses to a reddit question in r/GreekLife, typically a vote is taken as to whether a transfer student is accepted into the chapter at their new school. However, as with most policies, this can vary by organization and chapter.

One member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority is shown at one point to be pregnant. I did a little bit of searching for studies on the perception of pregnancy among sororities, and wasn’t able to find anything. However, I did come across an interesting 2010 thesis on communication in sororities about condom use and sexual activity, that mentions the declining sexual health and rising pregnancy rates of teenage women.

The head of the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter in the film, Sasha, is said to have taken three years away from school before starting college. This means that the character is on the cusp of being classified as a “nontraditional student.” This term, which is problematic in many ways, is also not well-conceptualized. Typically it is loosely defined as an umbrella term for college students outside of the 18-22 age range, but it is often expanded to include students along a number of other classifications, including those who are enrolled on a part-time basis, those who work full time or are financially independent, and students who defer college admission immediately after finishing high school. In the most wide usage of the term, Sasha qualifies as a non-traditional student. This got me to wondering: do nontraditional sorority sisters experience sorority culture differently? Are they particularly more or less likely to be involved?

To my surprise, I couldn’t dig up much information about this topic. However, there is one study that indicated that surveyed non-traditional students in Southern California who transferred into four-year colleges from community colleges were comparatively more satisfied with fraternities and sororities than traditional students. However, that is based on just one question from a much larger study, and fraternity/sorority satisfaction rates weren’t high among either group.

At the beginning of the film, quite a good deal of time is spent assembling the sorority wardrobe for Miley Cyrus’s character, to her dismay. However, the attention to detail in this segment is important: research has indicated that dress customs are an important means by which sororities communicate membership and establish collective identity. Likewise, sorority dress customs have been cited as a means of instilling idealized, traditional gender roles among new members. Essentially, if Cyrus didn’t perfectly look the part, matching the chapter’s conception of femininity, her cover as an existing member from another school was likely to be blown.

Similarly, a significant amount of time is spend acquainting Cyrus’s character with the slang and language norms of the sorority, which she is shown to struggle with throughout the film. While I found far less than I expected about language norms in sororities, I did find a dissertation written about the importance of language as a resource for the formation and expression of ethnic identity among the members of an Asian American college sorority – which I think is still notable and relevant. A book, Slang & Sociability: In-group Language Among College Students discusses the specific use of slang to delineate sub-groups within colleges, including sororities and fraternities. This ties in to the emphasis on slang terms in Cyrus’s sorority preparation, with terms like “amaze-balls” to flesh out her cover with the sorority chapter.

Overall, So Undercover isn’t a good movie, but it was far more charming than what I anticipated. Miley Cyrus is clearly a gifted performer, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see more serious acting from her in the future (her upcoming role in Black Mirror seems to be indicative of this). Jeremy Piven channels his typical douche-bag energy effectively into this role as well. The humor, however, is often mean-spirited, and places targets on the various sorority members. A number of moments feel misogynistic or just generally punching-down at young women, but the wild tone shifts are dramatic and weird enough to leave those concerns quickly in the rear view.

As portrayal of higher education, I can’t speak to the veracity of the sorority portrayal beyond the research I could dig up. However, the concept of the story is interesting, and touches on a handful of real issues in the sphere of higher education, such as the entanglement of intelligence organizations with various collegiate institutions. As far as a recommendation goes, I think this movie has been rightly forgotten, and isn’t particularly worth seeking out.

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